President Barack Obama must soon decide whether to order the building
of more F-22 Raptors or let the production lines close. Only 203 of the
aircraft described by the think tank Air Power Australia as "the most
capable multirole combat aircraft in production today" have been built
Support for the aircraft is not limited to defense hawks. Last
month, 44 U.S. senators, including Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, sent
the president a letter requesting an additional order of unspecified
size to prevent the planned 2011 shutdown. Bowing to political reality
rather than true military needs, the Air Force now claims it could
possibly get by with just 60 more aircraft.
Despite this, the Raptor may well have its wings clipped. The main
reason: Strategists plan to fight the next war based on the last (or
current) one. Where once we planned for massive set-piece battles, now
it seems many can't see beyond guerrilla warfare with lightly armed
The F-22, which entered service three years ago, blends key
technologies that formerly existed only separately on other aircraft -
or not at all. Its stealthiness will make trigger-happy combatants
shoot at birds. It has agility, air-to-air combat abilities and
penetrability far beyond that of the F-15 Eagle which entered service
33 years ago. It cruises at Mach-plus speeds without using
But the end of the Cold War, the current guerrilla wars, and what
Air Power Australia calls a deliberate campaign of "concocting
untruthful stories about its capabilities, utility and cost," has
devastated Raptor purchases. Originally the Air Force requested up to
762, but that was progressively cut to 648, 442, 339, then 277 before
the current 203, of which 134 have been built.
A major criticism of the Raptor is the cost - about $339 million per
aircraft. But much of this reflects a wisely added ground attack role
and a sneaky but common ruse used to cut weapon procurements.
Technology development costs are fixed. So each time an order is
reduced, per-unit prices go up. Critics slashed the F-22 order, and
then cited the "stunning" per-unit cost to slash away again.
This game has played out with one weapon system after another,
helping explain why an initial plan for acquiring 132 B-2 Spirit
bombers ended with a pitiful purchase of 21. But the current per-unit
cost for each additional F-22 is around $136 million, according to the
If necessary, the Air Force says it will try to fill the F-22
shortage by keeping F-15s flying to 2025. It won't work. Even eight
years ago, "some foreign aircraft we've been able to test, our best
pilots flying their airplanes [from other countries] beat our pilots
flying our airplanes every time," then-Air Force chief of staff Gen.
John Jumper told Congress.
Two years earlier, the independent Federation of American Scientists
(FAS) noted that the Russian Sukhoi Flanker Su-27, which entered
service eight years after the Eagle, "leveled the playing field" with
the F-15. Su-27s, both Russian-built and Chinese-pirated copies, are
now in arsenals around the world.
Nor are enemy fighters our only worry. Russian surface-to-air
missiles (SAMs) have improved dramatically in recent years. The
country's S-300 system is "one of the most lethal, if not the most
lethal, all-altitude area defense," noted the International Strategy
and Assessment Service, a Virginia-based think tank, three years ago.
China also has the S-300 and the Russians announced in December they'll
soon sell units to Iran.
The sale not only would threaten stand-off warning and control systems
like AWACS but also tremendously boost defense of Iran's Bushehr
nuclear reactor and Natanz uranium-enrichment site.
Yet the newer S-400 system, already deployed, is far better able to
detect low-signature targets at far greater distances. When mated with
the recently-tested Triumf SA-20/21 missile, it can even knock down
"Only the F-22 can survive in airspace defended by increasingly
capable surface-to-air missiles," declared Air Force Association
President Mike Dunn in December.
Some have demanded trading off F-22s for more of the cheaper F-35
Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), although it's vastly inferior
in both air-to-air combat and ground defense penetration. Further, much
of that lower price reflects the economy of scale of the vastly larger
order F-35 orders, even as increased development costs have
tremendously upped the Lightning II price tag.
The current Air Force budget estimate says the "flyaway unit cost"
of its F-35 version will be strikingly higher than that of the F-22
during the first four years of production. Only then will assembly-line
expansion drop the F-35 sticker to $91 billion by fiscal 2013.
The Russia bear has awakened from hibernation to rebuild its lost
empire. China continues its inexorable military expansion. Iran
desperately wants The Bomb, while North Korea revels in
unpredictability. Yes, Virginia, we really do have potential enemies
with weapons other than automatic assault rifles and improvised
explosive devices. We desperately need far more F-22 Raptors -
preferably to prevent wars, but if need be, to win them.